In Lynchburg, Virginia, for a speaking engagement, I have stopped by Jubal Early’s gravesite to pay my respects. It is grudging respect, to be sure—but I cannot deny he has been a formidable foe. Certainly, time has proven Jubal Early to be the Confederacy’s ablest defender.
And that has little to do with the battlefield.
“Old Jube” indeed had his ups and downs as a commander, but he’s generally remembered as an aggressive, effective leader who, late in the war, was totally outnumbered (and, some would argue, outmatched). His legendary irascibility earned him the moniker Lee’s “Bad Old Man”—reportedly the only man known to swear in front of the commander. Lee not only tolerated it but rewarded Early’s aggressiveness on the battlefield with greater and greater responsibility.
He saved the Confederate right flank at Fredericksburg through personal initiative and disobedience of orders—something normally looked harshly upon by his superior, Stonewall Jackson. Hard to crack down on a man who saves the army, though.
During the Chancellorsville campaign, Robert E. Lee entrusted Early with protecting the Confederate’s rear in Fredericksburg. His holding action kept the Federal VI Corps from executing a pincer movement on Lee’s army, although missed opportunities plagued both forces on the forgotten front.
At Gettysburg, Early failed to act in a timely fashion to once again secure the Confederate flank, demurring when given a direct order to take Culp’s Hill. When that missed opportunity eventually proved to contribute to the Confederate failure at the battle, Early threw his superior, Richard Ewell, under the proverbial bus.
When Longstreet suffered a debilitating wound during the battle of the Wilderness, Early was runner up as his replacement—a post that went to Richard Anderson. But Early got his chance days later when Third Corps commander A. P. Hill fell ill and Lee tapped early as the temporary replacement. Early finally got a permanent corps command when Richard Ewell fell ill after the fight at the North Anna River.
In the summer of ’64, Early and his men went on an independent mission, first to defend Lynchburg and then the Shenandoah Valley—and then on threaten Washington. A delay at Monocacy in mid July prevented him from getting into the Federal capital, which in turn proved to be the turning point of the campaign. Renewed Federal efforts against him, led by Phil Sheridan, resulted in a series of defeats, although Early’s own cavalry proved to be as much of a problem as Sheridan. With the fabled Confederate Second Corps in ruins by the end of October, Early had little more than a shadow of his command left to him throughout the winter. In March of 1865, even that was scattered to the winds by George Custer.
“While my own confidence in your ability, zeal, and devotion to the cause is unimpaired,” Lee wrote to him then, “I have nevertheless felt that I could not oppose what seems to be the current of opinion, without injustice to your reputation and injury to the service. I therefore felt constrained to endeavor to find a commander who would be more likely to develop the strength and resources of the country, and inspire the soldiers with confidence.” Subordinate John Brown Gordon, with whom Early had long had a testy relationship, replaced him in command.
That rise and fall alone provides plenty of fodder for examination, and for those pre-disposed, much to admire. To be honest, though, I don’t have strong feelings about Old Jube one way or another.
The reasons I grudgingly respect him begins when his military career ends. When Lee removed him, Early understood the move as inevitable and accepted it with good grace. That went a long way toward establishing an argument Early would ever after make: the infallibility of Robert E Lee. Early even made himself subservient to that idea, which he explored extensively in his own postwar writings and defended vehemently anytime anyone else dared assail it in theirs.
Early remained defiantly unreconstructed after the war, first going into exile in Mexico, the Cuba, then Canada before returning to Virginia to practice law and begin a writing career that defined the Lost Cause interpretation of the war. Along with D. H. Hill and Dabney Maury, Early served as one of the first and most aggressive voices to reframe the story of the war to better suit Southern sensibility.
Ignoring mountains of documentary evidence—including state articles of secession—Early argued that the war was not about slavery at all but, instead, states rights (conveniently never addressing the particular state right—the right to own slaves—that sparked the secession crisis in first place). He soothed Southern pride and gave meaning to their loss. He ennobled Confederate sacrifice in the face of greater numbers, insisting that Southerners weren’t defeated but rather were just overwhelmed.
In the Lost Cause telling of the war, Lee became the Marble Man, Jackson the great Martyred Hero. The war in the East became all-important (because in the West, after all, Confederates suffered a string of losses that ultimately doomed the Confederacy—so best not to pay too much attention to all that). Lee did not lose Gettysburg; Longstreet, Hill, Ewell, and Stuart lost it for him. Lee said, “It’s all my fault,” but the Lost Cause contended that it was really everyone else’s.
Anyone, north or south, who dared present a different interpretation felt the lash of Early’s unforgiving tongue and pen—and as a well-practiced attorney, he had impressive powers of argumentation and persuasion. Some of the Confederacy’s most notable commanders fell before his onslaught: James Longstreet, Richard Ewell, Joe Johnston, John Brown Gordon (who often gave back as well as he took).
To this day, I find many people who still subscribe to the Lost Cause interpretation of the war. In an era where race issues remain uncomfortable to talk about, and when we are still having legitimate debates about federal versus state power, the states rights interpretation of the war remains an attractive alternative that has some modern legs holding it up. But those are modern, not historical, legs—an attempt to make a particular sense of the past through a lens of today. From a historical point of view, the state’s rights interpretation is largely balderdash.
Historians who have tried to lay out evidence for that have found stout resistance. Early’s interpretation hangs on. Since the historical evidence is overwhelming, adherents to Early’s interpretation have recently taken to ad hominem attacks—a distraction technique where you call your opponents names because you can’t really refute their evidence. I’ve never heard a plumber called “elite” because he has expertise in plumbing, but historians who have expertise in history get dismissed with that brush all the time.
The best treatment of Early’s role in the creation of the Lost Cause comes from Gary Gallagher. Check out his excellent monograph Jubal A. Early, the Lost Cause, and Civil War History: A Persistent Legacy and his book The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Great stuff.
Of course, evidence didn’t matter to Jubal Early. He chose his facts selectively, then drew his line in the sand and never gave an inch. It has proven to be a highly attractive, highly defendable position—which his adherents still defend, 150+ years later.
To me, that is nothing short of impressive—and I mean that in all sincerity. Fighting the Lost Cause interpretation may be maddeningly frustrating, but I have to respect the strength of an opponent like that. As a writer, I can only hope to create something that endures so powerfully for so many years. The Confederacy may be long gone, but the position of its greatest defender still stands strong.